Buddhism

The sixth century B.C. saw a period of religious disillusionment within Hinduism. As all major religions experience, Hinduism experienced during this time much extremism within. Many Hindus became depressed at the idea that they would have to experience 100,000 lives before they would attain enlightenment. Others inflicted tortures upon themselves, sometimes gazing into the bright sun of India, others inhaling smoke and fire. Priest craft became rampant with people suffering the abuses of religious hierarchy. In defense, the people began to coin religious prayers and slogans that sarcastically referred to the priests as hoarding and gluttonous.(1)

But God brings all things to balance, and reforms began to happen within Hinduism. One of these reforms was to be the birth of Buddhism. A prince was born in India named Guatama. He grew up in a sheltered life, his parents intent that he not know the pain and grief of the outside world. But his parents could only shelter Guatama so long. He eventually entered the real world and began to see the pain of it.

Guatama knew he could not teach others until he first found the answers within himself. Why was there such universal unhappiness. How could one become happy? Guatama began his search by embracing an ascetic lifestyle, not unlike that of the Christian "desert fathers." Over the years, legends began to be born about him. Some said Guatama learned to live on one grain of rice a day. After a six-year search involving radical self-denial, he was near death. Not wanting to die without having found the answers, he started eating again. This coming back into balance saw the loss of his disciples, who were willing to follow him in his religious zeal.

Finally, Guatama, after a day and part of a night began to see the answers. He became enlightened with new knowledge. Guatama had become the Buddha-the "awakened one." Desiring to share his new knowledge, he set off for the town Benares to seek his former friends. These were the first to hear his new insights. This first talk to them came to be known as the Sermon on the Turning of the Wheel of the Law and involved a life that traveled the way of the "middle path"-a balanced life between the extremes of religious ascetics on the one side, and extreme self-indulgence on the other. People suffered because of this lack of balance!(2) To find the way to balanced living was it! "Happiness he who seeks may win, if he practice the seeking" said the Buddha.

Some feel that the Buddha started another religion. In a sense this may be true. But the Buddha never left his grounding in Hinduism. He lost respect for the "intellectualizers" of his day, who only wanted to talk about suffering. A disciplined, balanced life must be practiced.

Guatama's contribution to legitimate spirituality centered on the causes of pain and suffering. His teachings finally came to be known as "The Four Noble Truths." The first of the noble truths is to embrace the reality of universal suffering--from the suffering of a mother during child birth, through life's inequities and on through the universal fear of death. He believed that denial of suffering contributed to suffering. Westerners express this denial in their manic search for pleasure and power. The Buddha saw suffering as something, not to be shunned, but to be embraced--that suffering is central to the divine economy. We must acknowledge as facts of life: pain, decay, evil, separation from loved ones, felt frustration over our inability to have legitimate needs validated, failure to abandon and surrender to the mercy of God--all of these things, causes of suffering. Clinging to anything--we would call these things "addictions" today--is a cause of suffering. Being out of balance leads to emotional pain--being out of harmony with nature and life.

Guatama believed "my sorrow is the world's sorrow." That redemption was to be found in accepting the universality of suffering. This world-view leads to authentic "identification" with all other human sufferers.

The "Second Noble Truth" involves the cause of suffering. Guatama said to his disciples: "I teach only two things, suffering, and the release of suffering." The release has to do with the ability of one to check ones "cravings"-attempts to attain balance and satisfaction in spiritually inauthentic ways. To deny these cravings is what is central to the Cross of Jesus: a forsaking of all personal idols. The gratification of the senses cannot ever produce spiritual joy or fulfillment. A craving of the senses, a craving for success and popularity-all these restrict our freedom. The apostle Paul spoke of this when he said: "Don't you know, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?" (Romans 6:16). When all is said and done, sin represents a loss of freedom. Our denial to face the reality of our deep unhappiness and unrest within leads to all kinds of defense-building and idol-fashioning. Our general unhappiness comes from our cravings which fall into three groups: covetousness, resentment and infatuation. Christians are encouraged to put to death these cravings. Once, upon watching thirty young men chase a woman who had apparently robbed them, Buddha asked them, "Which do think is better, chasing women or tracking the self?"

The Third Noble Truth involves the complete cessation of our cravings. The ignoring of our real needs leads to unhappiness. We must ask ourselves: "Who am I, really?" Guatama believed that the pursuit of the "real self" was key and this involves finding God's real purpose for our lives. We find ourselves by loosing ourselves, according to Jesus. Therefore, Christians express this attaining of the real self by becoming identified with the suffering and death of Jesus. We should seek the cause of our cravings and then strive to remove the cause. This is accomplished by the joint effort of our selves and the Higher Power (AA) who is available to all who call upon him. The availability of God has been shown over and over in Alcoholics Anonymous. Tens of thousands of alcoholic people have called upon this "Higher Power" and have received the answer, though many had no particular allegiance to an "official" religion.

Though most Christians would scoff at the idea of the "transmigration of souls," the general idea has merit. The kind of character a person builds today will determine the happiness he will have in the future. Buddha believed that the true values of life include kindness and love. He said, "hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love."

Had Guatama stopped with the Third Noble Truth--"Cease the desires that lead to unhappiness, his followers would have been left with little practical help. The Fourth Noble Truth is broken out into eight steps that if followed offer that help:

1) Right Viewpoint. The beginning of the spiritual journey begins when one ceases to be a "victim" and starts to "own" ones problems. Guatama didn't claim to have found an original formula for happiness; he believed that the principles involved are ancient. Accepting ones personal responsibility for ones unhappiness is the beginning of the quest for happiness. As long as we view life as a victim we will remain unhappy. Accepting personal responsibility is starting off "on the right foot."

2) Right Aspiration. We must renounce the pursuit of false values and see our addictions for what they are: attempts to get our legitimate needs met in illegitimate (unhealthy) ways. The Buddha saw "kindness and love" as the sum of true values. These values put the emphasis on others and their needs. This concerned, outwardly focused mindset is critical. Guatama's first two steps involve attitude. Now we move into action: the kind of behavior that flows from right attitudes.

3) Right Speech. Slander, gossip and abusive talk contaminate ones own mental condition. Right speech-praise of others, encouragement, positive and hopeful talk blesses the giver and the receiver. The Christian Apostle Paul observed: "Whatever things are just…pure, lovely and of a good report…if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy-meditate on these things" (Letter to the Philippians 4:8).

4) Right Behavior. Guatama said it was better to encourage people in good things to do, rather than order them not to do wrong things. "Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good"-also a strong Christian principle. He added, "If someone curses you, you must suppress all resentment and make the firm determination. 'My mind shall not be disturbed, and no angry word shall escape my lips. I will remain kind and friendly, and with lovely thoughts and no secret spite.' If when you are attacked with fists, with stones, with sticks, with swords, you must suppress all resentment and preserve a loving mind with no secret spite."

5) Right Livelihood. Guatama believed that certain jobs would be spiritually injurious to one set on a spiritual path. On this he departed from Hindu thinking, which believed that everyone was born into his rightful occupation. The Buddha felt that one may have to change is line of work if it involved "destruction" in any way. This would include soldiering, butchering, slave trading and liquor or drug manufacturing. Making or selling illegal drugs, alcohol or other toxic substances he felt would not be conducive to the spiritual life. The spirit of this step is felt by modern liberal Christians in their desire to be socially responsible to the environment.

6) Right Effort. This step involves the "pace" of ones spiritual journey. There is no point in "working the steps" faster than others. It is important to find ones personal "tempo" of growth, a part of learning about ones true self (which facilitates a better understanding of God).

7) Right Mindfulness. The Buddha had an intuitive sense about human "feelings." He believed them to be fickle and short lived. A person's ability to be objective about his feelings allows for him to be less driven and overcome by them.

8) Right Contemplation. Guatama was in sympathy with the Yoga practices of his day though he did not find in the full answers to life and happiness that he sought. He saw the value in a person being able to "silence" his mind. Contemplation was simply a different way of discerning, not by reason and logic, but by insight and intuition. This is the goal of the Christian practice of Meditation: to develop the "right brain" or intuitive part of the mind as well as the rational "left brain" side. The Jewish psalmist David implored God, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).

This has been the briefest synopsis of the Buddha's steps toward knowing ones self, and in knowing ones self, knowing God, and by knowing the true nature of God, knowing happiness. The goal is the release of all "craving, resentment and covetousness." Such release provides for a freedom of spirit of "Nirvana."

Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind. To modern Buddhists, it represents the cessation of all future reincarnations-the escape from the "Round of Becoming." Nirvana can be experienced now, but Buddhists believe in an ultimate Nirvana, to be experienced at death. Nirvana has its Christian equivalent. New Christians often think of "heaven" as a place, in the direction of "up." "Eternal life" is a term used sometimes interchangeably with "heaven." But one grows in the Christian walk to see eternal life as a state of mind, a quality of spiritual life; something experienced as one comes to know the nature of God. This closely relates to Buddhism's "Nirvana."

After Buddha's death, his disciples wrote down his sayings and teachings. This Buddhist scripture is called the Tripitak, meaning three baskets. As happened to Christianity, Buddhism slowly changed, coalescing into two main groups: Southern Buddhism called Hinayana, and Northern Buddhism called Mahayana. These represent the conservatives and liberals of Buddhism.

The smaller group, Hinayana, feels they are the purest and closest to original Buddhist thinking. Hinayana means "small vehicle," indicating their belief that only a few can find release, or Nirvana. The larger group Mahayana means "great vehicle" reflecting their view that many may find salvation. The two ways of thinking about salvation is seen in Christianity. Conservatives or fundamentalist Christians believe in the "fewness doctrine"--that few will find eternal life. Liberal Christians are far more optimistic about how things will turn out. Some liberals hold to the ancient doctrine of Universalism; that is, God will finally restore all things to balance--that all will be, finally "saved", to use a Christian word.

Hinayana Buddhists believe they are fully in charge of their destiny--no help from God or others. This corresponds loosely to the Christian Arminian way of thinking: where personal choice-making is all-important; a "choice based" model of redemption. Mahayana Buddhists is the way of "mutual aid" where they can draw upon others, even other Buddha's for help. This more hopeful outlook is similar to the Christian "faith-based model of redemption" where reliance on a "greater power than ones self" (AA phrase) is the model.

"Whenever a person worships the Buddha, he is actually worshipping the Buddha nature, which Guatama revealed" (Ibid.). The "nature" of deity is important--Buddhist do not worship bronze statues. Christians, particularly Catholics and Orthodox worship the nature of Jesus when prostate before a crucifix--they are not worshipping the wood statue.

Mahayana Buddhists look for the coming of Maitreya, the "Messiah" Buddha of the next age. This is similar to the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming where Jesus is expected to return to earth a second time in the next age.

However there is another side to Mahayana Buddhism, called Ch'an in China and Zen in Japan. Zen isn't big on ideas like "heaven", "faith" or "god." It puts the priority on experience. Schools, books and teachers can only point, as a finger, toward a greater reality. Christianity could learn from this. Christian colleges, books, seminars, sermons, etc., are all fine as far as they go. But they only point toward a greater reality. Attempts at formulating a Christian "systematic theology" have only produced denominational division numbering in the thousands. "You must live a life of moderation and kindness and go about your daily activities, learning to question your impressions and thoughts. Suddenly, some day you will understand" (Ibid.).

Daisetz Suzuki, the Zen Master who brought the best of the tradition to the West, before his death in 1966 was asked point blank by Huston Smith: "What is Zen?" He answered in benediction fashion:

Infinite gratitude for all things past,
Infinite service to all things present,
Infinite responsibility to all things future.

"Remember the wheel of cause and consequence, of deed and destiny and the wheel of dharma that rights them all." Sathya Sai Baba

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Buddhist holidays (celebrated by children in China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam.

Bodhi Day-December 8. A celebration of the enlightenment of Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Nirvana Day-February 8. Observes the passing of Buddha into Nirvana. Buddha Day-April 8. Celebrates the birth of Gautama in Lumhini Garden. Houses and streets are cleaned and decorated with Buddhist flags and flowers. In villages, Buddhists gather around statues of the Buddha when it is dark. They walk around the statue with candles till all is covered in light.

Wesak-April 27. The holiest of Buddhist holy days. Celebrates Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. According to tradition, Wesak is a time when the Buddha returns to Earth, to bless it. Songkran-April (variable date). The joyous "Water Festival," a three-day welcome to Spring. In Thailand it marks the new year, and it is celebrated by throwing water on people, even strangers.
(BUDDHISM) "Remember the wheel of cause and consequence, of deed and destiny and the wheel of dharma that rights them all."

(Much More Buddhism to Come)

1 Hindu religious extremism should not be thought odd. Christianity has had its bout of it over its 2000 year history. It started with fanatical dietary laws (a carryover from Judaism) and the insistence that male proselytes have the tips of their penis cut off. Modern peculiar Christian behavior includes of Christians falling over backwards and others barking like dogs or mooing like cows.
2 The Hebrew wisdom literature speaks also to this: "Though people tend to extremism, God brings all to balance" (Proverbs 16:2).